Hong Kong restaurant's Covid-19 guide a hit in various sectors around the world

Black Sheep Restaurants co-founder Syed Asim Hussain and his team pieced together an internal set of protocols to be rolled out across the group's 27 restaurants. PHOTOS: BLACK SHEEP RESTAURANTS

HONG KONG - What started out as scribbles on napkins have turned into a handy guide on how to run a restaurant in a pandemic that is now referred to by varied sectors around the world.

The 20-page Covid-19 Playbook, a mish-mesh of common sense and practicality, was compiled by the management team at Hong Kong hospitality group Black Sheep Restaurants at the start of the year.

"Back in January, when we heard sort of murmurs of something happening in Wuhan, we felt that this was going to come to our doorstep," said the group's co-founder, Mr Syed Asim Hussain.

Together with his business partner Christopher Mark and team, they started to piece together an internal set of protocols to be rolled out across the group's 27 restaurants - one in Shanghai and the rest in Hong Kong.

The handbook covers sanitation practices and health protocols, as well as business and guest relations. Among the tips given are making hand sanitisers and wipes "available absolutely everywhere", for staff to be "tidy and spotless, now more than ever" as guests become more sensitive to sloppiness, and reducing menus and eliminating buffets.

In April, the handbook was shared online and went viral - it was downloaded more than 5,000 times. It is now available in five languages - English, Chinese, Japanese, French and Spanish - and is widely read not just by industry people in Hong Kong but also people around the world in governments, academia, as well as the travel and fashion industries.

"It amazes me. We're just silly restaurant people," Mr Hussain said, describing the experience as "pretty wild" and "really humbling".

"We don't claim to be Covid experts but we're just saying it is stuff that we are doing to protect our people, look after our guests and others may find it useful too."

While the coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on global economies, for Hong Kong it is a double whammy given last year's unrest.

So it comes as no surprise that the Black Sheep group clocked financial losses for the first time since it was set up in 2012 for two successive quarters this year.

For seven of the nine months this year, its staff - totalling more than 1,000 - had to take a pay cut or were made to go on no-pay leave and the group's revenue is "a third of where it should be".

The silver lining is that the financial success of the group in the first seven years has allowed it to trudge on while keeping everyone on the team- something Mr Hussain, 35, says is "my biggest success as a person".

And while he is now trying to get through week after week, Mr Hussain, who is Hong Kong born with Pakistani roots, is optimistic that the coming year could present many opportunities for hospitality players like him.

"For example, some amazing real estate opportunities. Luxury brands are looking at decreasing their footprint in cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, so I think that footprint will be replaced by hospitality brands."

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In Hong Kong, as the pandemic tapers and social distancing measures are relaxed further, food and beverage players, already suffering from last year's unrest, are now struggling to stay afloat. But the adversity is also spurring ideas.

In the meantime, he urged people to support their favourite restaurants.

"Restaurants, among other things, are cornerstones on which communities and neighbourhoods are built and I say this (not only) for Hong Kong but also for Singapore - restaurants have been a part of what made our cities exciting and interesting," noted Mr Hussain, who believes restaurants need to be part of Hong Kong's comeback story.

"We are what makes Hong Kong glossy and if we lose that, of course it's our loss, it's the industry's loss, but it's also the city's loss."

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